Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The invasion of the handhelds

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In this article:

Grenley-Stewart Resources

Words to the Wise

Lessons learned about using PDAs in the corporate environment

Using a personal digital assistant on the job has produced an unexpected bonus for Christine Snodgrass, an account executive with fuel sales company Grenley-Stewart Resources. When Snodgrass used to make a sales call carrying a briefcase overflowing with papers and books, she was immediately treated with suspicion. Now, however, with all this information stored on her handheld device, customers “don’t have a clue, and their guard is down,” says Snodgrass, in Tacoma, Wash. “That makes it so much easier to cold call and to approach potential customers.”

The past year has seen explosive growth in sales of personal digital assistants (PDAs)–pocket-sized computers traditionally used to store personal data such as appointments, lists, and calendars. But PDAs also are making inroads into the corporate world–and creating headaches for some IT managers.

“It’s thrown another wrinkle in,” says Mitchell Sheean, IT manager at Grenley-Stewart, referring to the fact that handhelds are just one more device for his department to manage and support.

According to Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., the PDA’s move into the corporate space has not always been graceful. Last fall, when Forrester polled 50 Fortune 1000 companies on their IT purchases for its report “Managing Device Chaos,” analysts found that 92% of employees had PDAs for their own use, but that most of these devices were unsupported by corporate IT departments. IT managers in general are a little wary of handhelds, the report concluded, because they add another client device to an often complicated mix.

Still, the attraction of handheld computing in business is clear–salespeople and other mobile workers can travel with all of their company’s information, as well as with their calendars and to-do lists in their pockets. Some of the newest devices feature full keyboards and screens, and include access to e-mail and the Web, letting mobile workers stay connected to the office without setting up a laptop.

Gregory Stewart, CEO at Grenley-Stewart Resources, says having current pricing information at hand decreases the time it takes to close a deal.

PDAs are the mighty-mights of the ever-growing mobile computer market. Last year, sales of handheld devices topped 3.9 million units, a 61% growth over the previous year, according to Dataquest Inc., of San Jose, Calif. And sales are expected to continue to skyrocket. Forrester Research predicts that 10.5 million units will sell by 2002, with 76% of those PDAs being used in business.

“It’s definitely the future,” says Grenley-Stewart’s Sheean.

Embracing the inevitable

AT A GLANCE: Grenley-Stewart Resources

The problem: With fuel stations across the country, it was almost impossible for salespeople to keep on top of pricing information. It took as long as a week to get all the relevant pricing information to a prospective customer.

The solution: The company handed out PDAs to its 10-person salesforce, and each member is now able to download current prices daily and take them out on sales calls. The PDAs also include maps to each truck stop location. Customers instantly have all the information they need to make a buying decision./font>

The IT infrastructure: Grenley-Stewart uses PalmPilots from the Palm Computing Division of 3Com Corp., of Santa Clara, Calif., and connects them to the corporate intranet via middleware from AvantGo Inc., of San Mateo, Calif.

The future: The company plans a pilot program to give palm devices to five of its clients–truck drivers–so they can download maps to the fueling stations, along with current fuel prices.

As more and more IT managers recognize the potential benefits PDAs offer, they are learning to embrace them as business tools. Indeed, companies such as Grenley-Stewart are issuing PDAs to their mobile staff and allowing them to download information from corporate intranets.

Grenley-Stewart issued PalmPilots from the Palm Computing Division of 3Com Corp., to its 10 salespeople a year ago. The handhelds were initially used in a traditional way–to store information on their truck-driver customers and keep track of appointments. But soon the account reps were using the devices to access timely pricing data on the company’s Web site, enabling them to cut in half the time it took to close a sale. The sales reps simply put their PDA into a “cradle” at a PC, and run a sync program, which downloads the information from the company’s Web site and ensures the information on the PDA and PC are updated and match.

According to Snodgrass, the time it takes to close a deal has gone from about a week to a day.

“With their PalmPilots, salespeople now have the price information they need at hand. That decreases the time it takes to close the deal,” says Gregory Stewart, Grenley-Stewart’s CEO.

In the old days, before their PDAs, salespeople at Grenley-Stewart would start wooing a new client by getting a list of the driver’s locations. They would then go back to the office and enter each location into the company’s intranet, get the latest fuel prices, and then report back to the customer. The process was long and unwieldy, according to Snodgrass.

To address this problem, about six months ago, Grenley-Stewart’s Sheean set up a system where salespeople download up-to-date pricing information from around the country right into their PalmPilots. Today, before she hits the road, Snodgrass downloads the latest pricing information, along with maps and directions to each of the company’s 1,400 fueling stations nationwide.

“Now when I go to a prospect, I have all the newest pricing information on hand,” says Snodgrass. “They can make a decision right there.”

The middleware solution

Sheean connected the PDAs to Grenley-Stewart’s intranet using the AvantGo 2.0 middleware product from AvantGo Inc., of San Mateo, Calif. The first version of AvantGo, which Grenley-Stewart uses, is essentially an offline Web browser for Palm OS-based PDAs. AvantGo grabs and caches all the pages on a Web site, and the contents are loaded into the PDA.

Words to the wise

In its 1998 report, “Managing Device Chaos,” Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., warns that as PDAs and other mobile computing devices enter the workplace in the pockets of workers, IT managers must plan how to manage them.

“In a few cases, IT managers see the potential of the PDAs and are actually buying them for their staffs, but that’s rare,” says Matthew Nordan, the author of the Forrester report.

The report offers three action plans for IT supervisors to manage the influx of a variety of handheld devices:

Supply synchronization service to user-owned devices. Since there’s no way to avoid PDAs at work, IT should set up its own synchronization service so users aren’t adding this software on their own. IT should set up groupware synchronization software that works with a variety of PDAs. The user would be responsible for buying a PDA that works with the synchronization package.

Help business managers decide on which packaged applications to purchase. Because several companies are developing application/device bundles to make it easier to connect to the corporate server, IT should stay up to date on all the newest bundles so they can advise business managers on the one that most closely meets their needs. Bundled applications are configured to work with the system, so they should require little effort from the IT manager.

Manage devices running custom applications. Some companies will want to take advantage of new devices, but IT will still have to build and customize its own software. IT will have to manage the development project and select the PDA that all employees will use.

“AvantGo works with a Web site and [synchronizes] your computer to your palm device,” says Sheean. “When you tell the AvantGo software to load a channel, you tell it to basically load a Web page.”

The new version of AvantGo, which was released in Sept. 1998, includes a server that sits between the PDA user and the enterprise data.

Of his setup at Grenley-Stewart Sheean says, “Using AvantGo made [accessing applications and information on the corporate server] a pretty simple process.”

Ultimately, the company would like to issue PDAs to all its customers (truck drivers) so they can download current prices and maps to the nearest fueling stations, according to CEO Stewart.

The eyes have it

Handhelds also have taken hold in the medical community, where doctors and medical students are using them to track patients and keep up-to-date on current research. At the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Department of Ophthalmology, Storm Eye Institute, in Charleston, residents are using the Palm III from 3Com Corp. to help keep track of the vital information they need to gain accreditation. MUSC’s 12 residents have to document that they’ve seen a certain number of patients and performed a certain number of procedures before they can be accredited by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Until recently, the residents documented each of their cases by writing information on a piece of paper and handing it to a secretary who typed it into a Microsoft Corp. Access database. However, as the number of patients and procedures increased, the system became unmanageable.

“A year ago, the system collapsed,” according to Dr. John Moran, the senior resident in charge of the program in Charleston. It was too difficult for one data entry clerk to keep up with, he notes.

As a self-proclaimed “computer guy,” Moran began looking for alternatives to the school’s paper-based system. At first he considered scan-tron sheets, which are similar to the answer sheets used on standardized tests. For each patient that residents saw, they would fill in a space with a #2 pencil and then scan it into the central computer. But he found them to be expensive: Moran was told it would take thousands of dollars to get up and running. He also found out that this system would be fairly inflexible, because he would need to create forms with fields for each situation (i.e., each procedure). Moran hit upon the Palm III after researching handhelds on the Web. He liked the idea of using them because residents could easily keep track of their appointments and class schedules, and because of the input device–a special pen.

“We experimented for about three months then implemented the program departmentwide in about Sept. 1998,” Moran says.

After selecting the device, Moran couldn’t find PDA software that exactly suited the school’s needs, so he wrote a program using Satellite Forms software from Puma Technology Inc., a data entry program that allowed the residents to fill out a form on each patient. He teamed up with Pen Computer Solutions Inc., an independent software developer in Rockville, Md., to help refine the form and to write the program to transfer the data from the PDAs to the department’s central Access database.

“Within a day, every body was using the PalmPilot,” Moran says.

According to James Byrnes, the IT network support manager at the school, setting up the PDA system was “the easiest thing in the world.” He set up one desktop system in the library that is available to the residents 24 hours a day. Byrnes also created password accounts for each resident and set up the application so that when the residents synchronize their PDAs, their data goes straight to the Access database. At the same time, the residents’ calendars are synchronized with the centralized Microsoft Corp. Outlook calendar where required meetings, lectures, and other scheduling data is kept.

Byrnes has secured and backs up the database regularly, and so far, has not encountered one hitch. The only thing he worries about is if residents lose or break their PDAs. To prevent that kind of crisis, Byrnes has four or five extras on hand.

“It’s cheaper than having to hire someone to do data entry,” Byrnes says. “We saved money the minute we bought them.”

Entering all of the required information about a patient or procedure now takes residents about 10 seconds. At the end of the week, the residents synchronize their PDAs to the central database and get an instant report of their progress.

“The quality of the data is so much better,” Moran says. “When residents leave, and have to document their experience, they have this report of every patient they’ve seen and every procedure they’ve performed.”

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Lessons learned about using PDAs in the corporate environment
IT managers can maintain control over how PDAs are connecting to the company network if they purchase the PDAs for their company.

IT managers should devise a plan for dealing with a variety of devices accessing the intranet.

PDAs can increase productivity and sales by giving instant access to a range of product information in the hands of mobile workers, such as salespeople.

Even when companies are not issuing PDAs, the devices are still becoming a part of the corporate landscape. Just ask Tedd Riggs, a telecommunications engineer at Seattle-based Ericsson Corp., a major supplier of telecommunications equipment, such as cellular radio, private radio (for utility companies, police, etc.), and fiber optics. Riggs “loves toys,” and owns several PDAs, including an HP Jornada 420 PPC, a Phillips Nino 312, and a Clio from Vadem Inc., of San Jose, Calif.

Riggs uses these handhelds for a variety of tasks, from keeping track of his schedule, to picking up e-mail and doing his expense reports. He also uses his Clio to connect directly to his company’s intranet to download brochures, data specs, price lists, and even Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentations.

He connects to the corporate intranet either by dialing directly into the Internet, which connects to the intranet, or while hooked up to a PC already on the LAN and using the PDA as a remote drive to access required documents.

As much as Riggs loves his handhelds, the IT department at Ericsson discourages their use at work. “Our IT department doesn’t support them in any way, shape, or form,” Riggs says. “They think they’re toys.”

Part of the problem, Riggs says, is that employees have a range of devices running different operating systems, including Palm OS and several versions of Windows CE, making it difficult for IT to manage the handhelds. As it stands now, Riggs and Ericsson’s IT staff have a tacit agreement–they don’t sanction his use of the PDAs, and he doesn’t ask for support.

“I kind of do it under cover,” Riggs says. //

Valle Dwight, based in Northampton, Mass., is a contributing editor to FamilyPC magazine.

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